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Archive for the ‘Driving’ Category

Corrected 20 August 2009

Readers of today’s News-Miner will already know: the FMATS Policy Committee scrapped the idea of a roundabout at the north end of Cushman St. and voted to plan for one-way traffic on the bridges south of the intersection.  I fear that their decisions have just driven a nail into the coffin of downtown revitalization efforts.

The Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System Policy Committee “voted 5-2 to abandon talk of a roundabout,” with Assemblyman Luke Hopkins and Fairbanks Mayor Terry Strle voting no, and “voted 4-3 to plan for one-way traffic on bridges to the intersection’s south.”

Current plans are to build a bridge joining Barnette St. (to the south of the Chena) with Illinois St. (to the north).  Barnette, Illinois, and Cushman, along with Doyon Pl. to the west east and Terminal St. to the east west, would intersect at a single point north of the river, between The Big I and Immaculate Conception Church.  The Illinois Street Reconstruction Project has been under discussion and in planning for decades, and it seems finally ready to move forward.  My understanding is that FMATS has recently been deciding whether to choose a roundabout or a signalized intersection.

While I have little experience driving roundabouts — they’re not very common in the United States, and I could count those in the greater Fairbanks area on one hand, even if missing three fingers — everything I’ve read about them suggests that they both increase safety and speed traffic flow.  For one example, Slate recently ran a piece called “Don’t be so square: why American drivers should learn to love the roundabout” that makes the following points:

  1. Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections because they reduce the number of possible places of collision, eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic, slow people down rather than encourage them to “beat the light”, and reduce the severity of accidents.
  2. Though vehicles appear to be moving slowly through roundabouts, average travel time through the intersection is actually reduced, because nobody has to sit through a ninety-second light cycle.
  3. Stop-and-start queuing is energy-inefficient (burns more fuel), and studies have shown roundabouts to waste less energy and to cause less pollution.
  4. Roundabouts are good for public space: they require less pavement than signalized intersections, increase pedestrian and traffic safety in neighborhoods, and offer the chance to actually beautify an intersection.

The article does not address roundabouts in subarctic climates, or the safety of trucks, RVs, and other large vehicles going through them.  It’s possible that winter driving conditions present some complication that makes roundabouts unworkable.  But I doubt it.

What has me more worried than FMATS’s rejection of the roundabout is their decision to plan the Cushman and Barnette bridges for one-way traffic.  Making those bridges one-way puts a major kink in the plan currently being pursued by the City of Fairbanks to turn both Cushman and Barnette two-way — and a two-way Cushman St. has been a central feature of the Vision Fairbanks downtown revitalization plan.

Some of the arguments for two-way streets in retail districts go like this:

  • People are more comfortable driving fast on one-way streets, while two-way streets make them (on the whole) drive more slowly and cautiously. Pedestrians are more menaced and less welcomed by fast vehicular traffic. Creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial to a central commercial/civic district.
  • With two-way traffic, businesses can be seen easily by drivers in both directions — for example, a cafe will be seen by both the morning and the evening traffic, so it’s more likely to get unplanned, drive-by business.
  • One-way streets require more out-of-direction travel for people to reach their destinations. (“Is that it? Damn, I passed it. Well, let’s circle the block.”) This frustrates drivers and over time makes them less willing to enter an area.

Vision Fairbanks has tremendous promise. But the decision to plan for one-way bridges may well hamstring the revitalization.  The planning consultants who drafted the original plan stressed that two-way traffic is a linchpin of making Cushman a thriving retail district.

I’m worried that the Vision Fairbanks plan is now being bled to death.  If two-way traffic is as crucial as it’s been made out to be, the new retail and civic hot spot will be a bust.  Then, of course, all the nay-sayers who distrusted city planners from the beginning will come out, crowing, “I told you so!”  And those of of little imagination will have proven themselves right.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

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My daughters and I just watched a movie whose soundtrack featured the Tom Cochrane song “Life is a Highway”.  What an odious, and sadly telling, metaphor.

The complete lyrics aren’t of interest to me, just that metaphor.  What does it mean that life is (or should be) a highway?  What are the salient characteristics of highways?

Highways are designed for high-speed travel.  They themselves are not rife with destinations — attractions only slow people down — but are merely the means to get from one place to another.  So, if we say that “life is a highway”, we seem to be saying that life is (or should be) non-stop travel from one place to another.  We’re saying that life is constant escape from our current situation.  It is all novelty, lacking the intimacy that comes only with stability, regularity, and grappling with the familiar.

I think the highway’s main attraction — to those that romanticize it — is getting somewhere else.  It does not hold the same appeal to those who are happy where they are.  Romance with the highway is romance with with escape — which arises only with discontent, and which arises more frequently when people have no places worth staying in.  Our national love affair with motoring bespeaks the general worthlessness of our communities as places of durable happiness.

The street, on the other hand, is not the highway.  A good street is made for people, not for cars.  It is full of destinations.  It encourages dawdling and loitering.  It is full of human activity and things of human interest.  It is not a place to escape, but a place to build relationships and community.

Isn’t that what people should have a love affair with instead?

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A quick news flash, because I’m tired: Jerry Cleworth’s resolution, which I think would have kneecapped the downtown revitalization effort,  failed — though only through a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.  The final vote: For, Cleworth, Roberts, and Stiver; Against, Bratcher, Gatewood, Eberhart, and Mayor Strle.  (News-Miner story here.)

As I posted Saturday, City Councilman Jerry Cleworth proposed a resolution (no. 4353) that would have halted the use of city funds for the conversion of Cushman Street from one-way to two-way.  This conversion, however, was the linchpin of Vision Fairbanks, according to the city planners hired to draft downtown’s revitalization plan (Crandall-Arambula of Portland, Oregon).

From the start of Citizens’ Comments on Monday evening to the final vote, four and a half hours passed.  At least three of those were spent on public testimony, including a little testimony on another other resolution before the Council.  The testimony was largely in opposition to Cleworth’s resolution — though not so overwhelmingly as it was in favor of Vision Fairbanks’s passage at previous meetings.

Despite the good case that existed in favor of the resolution — and Mr. Cleworth seemed to make that case beautifully — it seemed plain to me that most of the citizens testifying in favor had not attended any of the original visioning meetings, had not read the final plan approved by the Borough Assembly, or had heard only spotty details through the newspaper or word of mouth.  Of course, you could also say that most of the supporters had merely drunk the Vision Fairbanks Kool-Aid and that their testimony didn’t address the meat of Cleworth’s concerns either.  Frankly, I was tired enough when he finally spoke that I couldn’t keep all the pieces together.

There was a relatively brief grilling of Fairbanks Public Works director Mike Schmetzer, City Engineer Bob Pristash, and Donna Gardino of FMATS (the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System).  They covered the history of certain appropriations and projects, and discussed the sources and allocation of various monies.  It’s probably not over my head in principle, but it felt like it at 10:45 at night.

Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had what I thought was the most sensible suggestion of the evening: postpone the vote on the resolution until Wednesday’s work session and later public meeting with Crandall Arambula.  If we can present our concerns to them, she reasoned, they may have a good explanation of how various projects will work, or at least convince us of the utter necessity of this current project.  Cleworth was the only other person to support her, so it failed.

Some comments made by Stiver and Chad Roberts concerned me: they both seem to think Fairbanks’s chance of attracting major retail downtown is low to nil.  They seem to think that, since the explosion of big-box chain retail outlets at Steese and Johansen, the City of Fairbanks has missed the boat.  Of course, attracting a major anchor store on Cushman Street is supposedly critical to Vision Fairbanks’s success.  If they’re right, then the plan is largely screwed — I hope not irredemably.

(This makes me wonder: Why, when V.F. was before the Council earlier, did they cower in fear at its suggestion that one regulatory tool of encouraging downtown retail might be to restrict big-box retail development elsewhere for a time?  Why did their resolution’s otherwise tepid language condemn the inclusion of such a suggestion in the plan?)

I should mention that some of the City Council members seemed genuinely torn about what to do, most notably Bernard Gatewood and John Eberhart.  And, when I talk about Jerry Cleworth “kneecapping” or “deep-sixing” Vision Fairbanks, that’s not really being fair to him.  I think he’s a responsible public servant with a clear understanding of the budget, and he has responsible stewardship at heart.

My only real distrust — and this just as far as a vision for vibrant civic and commercial space — is for Chad Roberts.  He seems genuinely to believe that downtown is just fine as it is.  Also, during the Council meeting ten months ago, he expressed an admiration for the free market that seemed to preclude a community’s having any power to say what it wanted in a city center.  Whatever his other virtues, he seems to disagree with me that communities have a right of collective self-determination that, where city planning is concerned, should usually supersede the right of the individual to build whatever civic monstrosity he likes.

I’m happy for now that Vision Fairbanks lives to fight another day.

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Anybody reading today’s (Saturday’s) News Miner knows that Jerry Cleworth of the Fairbanks City Council has proposed a resolution that would halt Cushman’s conversion into a two-way street.  While his goal of saving money is admirable, the proposal is short-sighted and would deal a major blow to the revitalization of downtown.

You can help downtown — and, by extension, all of Fairbanks — by attending the City Council meeting this Monday (February 9) and testifying against this resolution.  Citizens’ testimony begins at 7:00.

Cleworth is quoted as asking: “Would it not be wiser to try and get some infrastructure upgrades such as sidewalks and streets rather than spending it redirecting traffic?”

By his question, Councilman Cleworth trivializes the value of turning Cushman into a two-way street. He tries to make it sound as if all the money will do is redirect traffic, and thus shows a shallow understanding of the effect of vehicular traffic on a business district.

I can think easily of three reasons for turning Cushman — supposedly our “Main Street” — from one-way to two:

  1. When a network of one-way streets requires lots of turns and out-of-direction travel, individual businesses suffer. Despite the alleged convenience of cars, people have only so much patience, and they’re less likely to visit a business if it requires turning several times.
  2. When a downtown is plagued by a network of confusing one-way streets, people are likely to avoid downtown altogether, and all businesses suffer. People like to have multiple ways in and out of a business district, and they like to know it will be easy to navigate.
  3. When converted to two-way, traffic speeds on Cushman (and Barnette, don’t forget) will be reduced, since drivers (as a whole) are more cautious on a two-way street than on a one-way. This will make Cushman a more appealing place for pedestrians, which is at the crux of Vision Fairbanks. Places that invite pedestrians also invite business, since people, at their slower pace, are more likely to stop at establishments unexpectedly.

The conversion of Cushman to two-way traffic is not trivial; it is a catalyst project that is meant to attract new businesses, and perhaps the linchpin of the whole Vision Fairbanks plan.  If you were an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you rather locate your store where people could reach it more easily, on their way into and out of your neighborhood?

I appreciate that Councilman Cleworth is concerned for the wise allocation of limited City money. But I’m afraid that his resolution, if passed, will pound a nail in downtown’s coffin and only fulfill the prophecies of those nay-sayers who have decried Vision Fairbanks from the start.

Please encourage the City Council to reject this resolution. Encourage them to follow through on this crucial part of a project that has received overwhelming community support and that will make downtown again a very worthwhile place to be.  Come to the City Council meeting this Monday evening; wear blue to show your support for Vision Fairbanks; and tell the Council members that Cushman Street must be made two-way!

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Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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A letter to the editor in Tuesday’s News-Miner sparked a little discussion about the Fairbanks Parking Authority. It seems that a number of people don’t like getting tickets when they park downtown and blame the Parking Authority for excessive zeal. They seem to want parking offered that is free of charge and unrestricted as to duration, place, and manner.

The economist Milton Friedman is famous for saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” I offer a corollary, one that should rile all those who hate government subsidies, and certainly those who hate the subsidy of private goods at the expense of community good:

There is no such thing as free parking.

This may go against the experience so many of us have of driving to a retail or commercial establishment, finding a parking place, and never coughing up so much as a dime. That is because parking is subsidized by community money. An example should help explain this:

Our local Wal-Mart, located near the intersection of the Johansen and the Old Steese, occupies a total area of 1,154,562 square feet. Of this, the building occupies 259,992 sq. ft., or 22.5%, and the non-building area — mostly parking — occupies 894,570 sq. ft., or 77.5%. The total assessed value of Wal-Mart’s local property is $24,864,040. Of this, the structures are valued at $17,359,387, or 69.8%, and the land value (which probably includes the land the building sits on) is $7,504,653, or 30.2%. (These figures are from the 2007 assessment, available at the FNSB Property Database.)

Okay, that was a lot of numbers. What’s relevant here is that the building, which occupies less than a quarter of the land area, accounts for more than two-thirds of the entire property’s assessed value, while the land itself, over three-quarters of which is not built on (and about half of which seems to be parking), accounts for less than a third of the assessed value.

In short, the Borough taxes parking lots far less than it taxes buildings. That is the subsidy. The shame of it is, it’s like this nearly everywhere.

The value of a property to the Borough, it seems to me, is the value of what could be built there. It is like this when we pay for many things that, like land, are finite: we pay more for the use of a scarce resource, and what we pay is based heavily on how much we keep others from using. Wal-Mart, no matter how many square feet their building occupies, still uses 1.1 million square feet. That’s over a million square feet not available to other retail, commercial, civic, or residential uses, a million square feet that has potential value to the citizens of the Interior.

So when Wal-Mart is taxed most heavily on how less than a quarter of its land is used, the Borough is giving their car-driving shoppers a big, wet kiss. I suspect that if land were taxed at the same rate as buildings, Wal-Mart would install parking meters overnight — or at least their “everyday low prices” couldn’t be so low.

Wal-Mart is not receiving special treatment this way. My own house occupies slightly more than a quarter of the land it sits on, yet it accounts for over 92% of the property’s assessed value. The Borough seems to be subsidizing my driveway and my lawn, and I’m not so sure this is fair.

There certainly are land uses that deserve government subsidy, things that are social goods. Agriculture comes to mind as the most worthy. But parking is not a social good: it benefits only the driver and does nothing for those too young, too old, too poor, or too infirm to drive. What’s more, the ease of “free” parking encourages people to drive to their destinations, rather than busing, biking, or walking. Free parking only makes living far away from neighbors and community more desirable. And that’s not a behavior government has any business encouraging.

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UAF’s Rasmuson Library is going through a strategic planning process right now, and my department — Alaska and Polar Regions — is doing its own as part of that process. One thing I’ve been reminded of is how long-term vision gets too easily sacrificed (if it’s even conceived) for short-term feasibility. And I don’t know what to do about it.

One of the bright spots of the Rasmuson, the jewel in our crown, is the archives. (For those who are not researchers or librarians, an archives is a collection of non-current records of individuals, families, and organizations, and may include personal papers, government records, photographs, and film. Archives are essential for doing original historical research.) We have around four linear miles of archival materials on shelves, not to mention the vaults where our audio and film recordings are kept. Our archives makes us one of the premier institutions worldwide for arctic research.

There are some collections an archives can count on getting as a matter of course: for example, the university is required to leave some of its institutional records there. But a great part of our archives comes from voluntarily donated collections. Our donors must be able to meet with our archivists and to bring in their collections — which means they must be able to get to us easily. And that’s the problem.

The popular opinion seems to be that the folks at Facilities Services, who govern parking, are a bunch of bloodthirsty jackals who will ask you to open a vein for a parking permit and will turn your grandmother over to the Taliban if you run afoul of their meters or regulations. (I take no position on this, except to say, I feel sorry for them, since they are apparently mandated to operate on a cost-recovery basis, covering all their operations with fees and fines.) There is now no free parking on campus. Whether this is just or not, it makes it hard for our donors to reach us.

As APR discussed its piece in the strategic plan, people began referring to “the parking problem”: namely, that the shortage of parking, not to mention the absence of any free parking, made it difficult for donors to get to our offices. (Apparently, the members of a local historical group have an understanding that they should not visit our archives, because it is so difficult.)

I conceived of it differently: as a transit problem. To my mind, if frequent, reliable public transit were offered in the Borough, our visitors, including our donors, would rarely need to drive to us. Of course, for there to be such transit, we’d need greater Borough funding to buy more buses, expand the coverage of routes, pay for drivers, et cetera. Greater Fairbanks sprawls out all across the Tanana River Valley; the coverage by public transit required to get just the more-populated areas to the university could require major public investment, and it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.

In contrast, parking policies can be changed overnight. And that’s the solution my department is going for. I think we’ll work through proper channels to attempt to designate one or two parking spots near the library as “invited library guest only”.

I’m not upset that we’re pursuing the parking solution. It only makes sense. But I’m disappointed (not surprised) that nobody else seemed to think of our problem as part of a greater public problem — or, if they did, as a part of a problem worth tackling. We’re certainly willing to say, “Let’s take the parking issue up with the chancellor.” Why couldn’t we, with other departments, ask the chancellor to address the future of public transit with the Borough Assembly?

I like self-reliance. I like individual initiative. But transportation, of which parking is only a small part, is a problem we grapple with all over Fairbanks. A long-term solution to our various transportation woes is not possible when we try to solve these problems at the small organizational level. Paradoxically, the best way for organizations to be self-reliant is to band together for region-wide changes — so they can be free to grapple with the problems that really matter to them.

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